In the US, there are two main types of prison systems: public and private. They differ in how they’re funded and run, the types of inmates they house, the rehabilitation efforts they provide, and the level of security they require. Private prisons were created to alleviate issues, such as overcrowding, that many public prisons were facing. However, when states privatized prisons, it could lead to longer sentences and more inmates, according to a new study published in the journal Labour Economics.
The average cost per day per prisoner
Authors Gregmar I.Galinato and Ryne Rohla from the School of Economic Sciences of Washington State University used instrumental variables regression on individual and state data from 1989 to 2008. They found that private prisons led to an average rise of 178 new prisoners per million population every year. If all additional prisoners are put in private prisons, it will cost the states about $.19 to $10.6 million per year from an average cost of $60 per day per prisoner.
Privatizing prisons also increases the length of sentences, particularly in nonviolent crimes that have more flexibility in sentencing guidelines. Galinato told Phys.org that not all crimes are created equally. For crimes like nonviolent drug crimes, fraud, or property damage, judges have more leeway in sentencing offenders. When private prisons were established for these crimes, states saw significant increases in a sentence and higher sentencing rates based on the 1989 to 2008 data the researchers analyzed.
Effect of private prisons
There are two possible reasons why such an effect of private prisons happens. One is corruption, where legislators or judges may be influenced to write laws with harsher penalties or decide for harsher sentences. The authors cited the “kids for cash” scandal, where the judge was sentenced to 28 years for the racketeering scheme. Pennsylvania prosecutors said that the scheme involved sending juvenile offenders to privately-run detention facilities in exchange for kickbacks.
Two judges involved in the kids for cash scandal were bribed by a private prison firm to give harsher penalties to juvenile offenders rather than probation to increase the occupancy at for-profit prisons. Another reason for the effect of private prisons mentioned by the researchers is increased capacity.
Galinato said that if a judge knows that public prisons are already at overcapacity, he or she will likely be more hesitant to send marginal criminals to prison. However, when there are private prisons that don’t have capacity issues, it induces more inmates.
While Galinato admits he doesn’t normally research on prisons, his previous research focused on corruption. He narrates watching a television show called Elementary in 2015, where it re-imagined the Sherlock Holmes story. One episode that stuck to his mind was about private prison corruption and it inspired him to do some basic research about it. Soon, he learned about the kids for cash scheme. When he saw the corruption side of the story, he thought, “I can model this.”
Significance of the study
Galinato and Rohla hope that their study will influence government authorities to consider the benefits and costs of expanding private prisons. The authors don’t mean that private prisons are bad. Yet, states have to be careful in establishing or using them. If the state has regular or previous issues with corruption, for instance, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more skewed laws. For example, there may be longer sentences for offenders. If the goal is to reduce the number of inmates in prisons, increasing the number of private prisons in that state may not be the solution. Instead, they can study anti-corruption policies or sentencing reform that will improve the fairness and efficacy of judicial outcomes.
For many years, the public has been asking about the role of private prisons in mass incarceration in the United States. It is also believed that the US incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including China. According to the World Prison Brief, the prison population rate of the US is 639 out of 2,094,000 total prison population. This is followed by El Salvador (566 prison population rate), Turkmenistan (552), Thailand (546), Palau (522), Rwanda (511), and Cuba (510).
Galinato, however, saw no published study that rigorously estimates the casual effect between US prisons and incarceration rates. He believes that comparing the growing numbers of private prisons in the country to the rising incarceration rates could be related differently. That is, increased crimes may mean more private prisons are necessary to hold them. Even if the authors started working on their study in 2015, they said it took them several years to consider that possible bias in their study.
The moment they factored that possible bias while checking thousands of papers about prison privatization, the result still shows that private prisons led to longer sentences and more prisoners. “It was very hard work,” Galinato said. They found out why nobody has done such work before but they hope that it could give lawmakers something to think about when adding or consider bringing in private prisons.
Private prison populations
The Sentencing Project shares that US private prisons incarcerated 121, 718 people in 2017. Such a number represents 8.2% of the total federal and state prison population. The private prison population in the US reached its peak in 2012 with 132,220 inmates. A total of 18 states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons. The first state to adopt private prisons was Texas. In 1985, it incarcerated the largest number of people under its jurisdiction.
Human rights advocates have also criticized the inadequacy of private prisons. They said that traditionally, the purpose of imprisoning an individual falls into three areas: punishment for the criminal, rehabilitation of the offender, and protection for the public. Considering all these areas, private prisons do not perform better than public prisons. An article titled Prisons for Profit: Incarceration for Sale published by the American Bar Association, highlighted that as the number of Americans incarcerated for non-violent and low-level offenses has increased, so has the number of private prisons in the country.
Considering the new study by Washington State University researchers, states and countries have to be more careful in utilizing private prisons.